Travel special: A li'l mindspace by the River Mandovi at DoubleTree by Hilton, Goa-Panaji
Private views that blur the river and the sky, the finest organic cuisine and artisanal treats, and a special spice trail experience — here’s a getaway descended straight from the heavens.
This is the second property in Goa of the DoubleTree by Hilton network, and a third new destination is coming along too, we're informed, as we settled in for a weekend of thorough rest and relaxation, submitting our work-weary selves to the ever-comforting hospitality of the hotel's staff.
But the job was half done with just the view - a panorama that unfolds at a distant opening of the Mandovi River, snaking its course by the resort, idly lapping along the property’s perimeter, and washing ashore some rather timid ripples for waves.
For close to an entire hour upon checking in, this particular guest admits having done absolutely nothing else but gazed across the waters from his private balcony view, keeping check over the slow, repetitive trips of the ferries at the local jetty, as they made their timely trips back and forth, from one side of the river to the other.
For guests with subdued artists in them, the view here is sure to leave you feeling liberated, and very naturally inspired.
High up on a plateau
At the heart of this DoubleTree property is a sprawling, all-comforting mango tree, said to be over 130 years old, around which many of the ritzy dinners and private feasts are hosted.
The long, spindly branches of the overhang almost lull guests to sleep over laidback repasts, with a delicate breeze wafting across from the river.
Right at the edge of the resort, meanwhile, a sparkling infinity pool almost spills over into the broader canvas of the Mandovi.
On the weekend that we were here, despite a steady, insistent downpour over the plateau, the guests in the pool refused to step out of the water — never mind the pouring rain!
And, with the pool open until late hours (last dip at 10 pm), the next stop is predictably to the outdoor bar at Feliz, to sample the finest of their collection of spirits and cocktails, served up with some authentic coconut-heavy Mangalorean, Goan and Coastal cuisines — all exquisitely presented in
elegant displays that meld traditional concepts with a contemporary flourish.
Among our top picks - and dishes to write home about - were the Tharakari Gassi (Mangalorean style mixed veggies and coconut curry), the Khatkhatem (mixed veggies with coconut paste flavoured with turmeric), and the Chanya Ras (Goan white gravy speciality).
The Nuggekayi Pulimunchi (tender drumsticks in regional masala) will have you licking up he kitchen's best flavours, quite literally, off your fingertips while there are always portions going around of the typical Goan dishes of Prawn Balchao, Lamb Vindaloo and Pork Sorpotel.
The Feliz beverage menu is as extensive as you'd expect, while its food menu is comparably smaller with a limited number of dishes, but each one of them is worth a try!
Among unexpected items, among the breads, you also get to pick the pundi (steamed, roasted semolina) or Goan poee, apart from the appams, sannas and neer dosa options.
Seafood by the river
There's another bar on the premises - at the all-day diner Comida, which offers a much larger selection of choices for a drink alongside a far more comprehensive menu that includes dishes across regional and international cuisines.
But it's really the view that calls for more fresh rounds of tipple - or coffee.
On a glistening evening of birds chirping overhead, fog horns in the distance and rain clouds playing impulsive artists in the sky, you'd do well to saunter over to Rio Salao, in the resort's lobby lounge.
An open balcony terrace yields a glorious view of natural hues blending into seeming newer colours, between the Mandovi's aquamarine foreground and the sapphire expanse of Goa’s skyline that serves as a background to every manner of celebration, big or small.
By request, you also get to nibble on platters of tea delicacies including a variety of sandwiches, freshly baked goodies and small eats - all made to go with pots of steaming herbal tea or artisanal coffee.
For our top picks, we recommend the Pizza Ai Frutti Di Mare from the oven-fresh pizzas section - an Italian seafood pie of squid, prawn, fish and salmon, and the Linguine Pescatore pasta of tomato, mixed seafood and cream.
There are hand-crafted chocolates, cakes and desserts on offer too, if you're given to prolonged dramatic acts of degustation.
Word of caution: There's never too much drama in these parts, especially with such good food at hand!
As local as it gets
If you're inclined to even more extreme relaxation, swing by the in-house spa, which is open for fairly late requests (until 9 pm) and presents a heartwarming spread of assorted treatments.
We sank into the well-appointed spa for a bone-deep refresher of a full-body massage, barely picking ourselves up after the treatment - seemingly too unstrained and unwound to even raise a hand to place an order for room service.
It's a darn good thing that the spa actually assisted us with our dining preferences, to be served post-massage!
That's a nice service touch to keep in mind; not to forget the trademarked Sweet Dreams beds in every room, equipped with smart lighting and motion sensors, and by-request sessions at the 24/7 fitness centre.
Of the hotel's 160 guest rooms on offer, there are also nine suites and a celeb-sized Presidential Suite that includes two bedrooms and a private terrace.
Our host at the hotel took a moment to give us a rundown of frequent celebrity guests at their resort — and the list is impressive.
For regular folk aspiring for the stars, most of the guest rooms here do just as well to give you a rare
experience, especially given their private balconies with requisite views of the Mandovi River and its landscape.
The hotel's architecture does beg a few moments of contemplation, and is statedly Goan-Portuguese inspired with liberal use of laterite stone, which is indigenous to Goa.
There are abundant elements derived from Goan churches too, such as in the high roof and steeple at the centre of the lobby, combined with modern design touches.
The serene vibe of the hotel extends in a sense to the kitchen as well, where the hosts insist everything is artisanal - even the crockery and cutlery; nothing is imported, enthused our attendants, insisting that everything they use is as local as it gets.
Our mistress of spices
The best thing yet about this particular DoubleTree is its proximity to Goan heritage landmarks, and the hotel is ever-forthcoming to organise local jaunts and group visits.
Being fairly close to the capital of Panaji, you’re just a hop-skip away from the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Goa Velha, and a stone's throw from the popular Miramar beach.
A number of shopping (ask for the night bazaars and flea markets), dining and nightlife spots are also placed nearby, making for some fun evening getaways.
Newcomers to Goa could get onto a heritage trail to visit the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, the 16th-century Reis Magos Fort, and the magnificent 16th Century Cathedral dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria (the largest church in Asia), among other famed destinations.
There's always a quiet moment to be had, and some calm in between the frenzy of urban life. For nature lovers, the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary isn't too far either, and you can easily find a guided tour of the estuarine mangrove habitat, which sits on the lush green island of Chorao.
The highlight of our stay, however, was a by-request visit to the nearby Tropical Spice Plantation, an awe-inspiring fully organic farm spread across nearly 150 acres, in the pristine village of Keri, about 6 km off Ponda.
One step into the plantation, over a stroll through rows of beetle nut groves, you'd be relieved to find yourself back in touch with the elements, and to have your senses open to the delightful touch, smells and taste of a variety of spices.
Over a complete spice trail walk, you're left feeling like an utterly un-evolved creature, an organism given to modern-day convenience and entirely out-of-touch when it comes to the simplest pleasures — like picking fruits off a tree, peeling spices off pods and bushes, or just rubbing flowers in one's hands to get a whiff of pure essence.
The collection of natural oils here is worth the visit, and you'd do well to stock up on essential supplies, all served along with some very insightful and helpful information about the origins of the spices, and their many uses, apart from their actual market value.
At the end of a hearty organic meal — one that was remarkably tasty, our best moment came in the form of some instant natural therapy.
To cure the walkers on the trail of any fatigue or neck and shoulder pain, our host manually poured ladles of fresh spring water down our spines.
In all seriousness, the effect of the naturally cool liquid is miraculous! We were also handed small shots of feni, the local beverage, to aid our digestion — but even that was no match for the spring water, in terms of a feel-good wind-down.
With some expert tips on catching up on lost sleep, we also came back with vials of lavender essence in tow; our host's advice - "One drop on your pillow, and you'll sleep like a baby, without any dreams also!"
And she was completely right. After a hard week's hideaway, we did slumber like logs run down the river, dead to the outside world. When we awoke, all set to head back home, the view of the Mandovi wouldn't let us bid adieu that easily. By a gust of breeze straight off the river, we had to promise, we will be back here very soon.
The writer was at DoubleTree by Hilton, Goa-Panaji by invitation.
— Jaideep Sen